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Metagame Mentor: Pioneer Metagame Roundup – August 2022

August 11, 2022
Frank Karsten

Editor's Note: We're excited to announce two new weekly article series, each launching this week and focusing on the path to the Pro Tour. Every Thursday, Frank Karsten will bring you the latest from across the Constructed landscape with "Metagame Mentor" to get you ready for your next big tournament. Friday features the return of "The Week That Was" in the hands of Corbin Hosler, chronicling player stories and event recaps from around the world.

Let me start by introducing myself: my name is Frank Karsten, and I'm a Magic: The Gathering player, writer, and mathematician from the Netherlands.

I've played in nearly 80 Pro Tours, which puts me in the top five most experienced players of all time, and I was inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2009. As you can imagine, the history of the Pro Tour means a lot to me, so I was thrilled when the return of the Pro Tour was announced earlier this year.

Earning a Pro Tour invite means that you get a chance to test your mettle against the best Magic players in the world, so it's a rewarding and memorable accomplishment that is worth aspiring to. Of course, earning such a qualification takes some effort.

To summarize the new path to the Pro Tour briefly: To qualify for a Pro Tour, which is held three times a year, you need to perform well at your corresponding Regional Championship, which also happens three times per year. Regional Championships are invite-only events, and the way to earn an invitation is by placing highly in qualifier tournaments at local stores or larger conventions in your region.

The full details can be found in the Return of the Pro Tour announcement article, plus there's Premier Play on Magic Online and MTG Arena as well. But most of the paths to the Pro Tour go through the Regional Championships.

I hope that this weekly column can help as a guide on that path, both by highlighting the key qualifiers and premier events in the various geographical regions and by getting you up to speed on their Constructed formats.

Every week, I aim to provide:

  • Deck highlights from last weekend's biggest competitive events, if applicable
  • A numerical metagame snapshot of a given format, along with aggregate decklists of top-tier and/or novel archetypes
  • An overview of the biggest upcoming events

The metagame snapshot, which will always form the bulk of the article, will generally focus on Standard, Pioneer, and Modern on a rotating basis. Indeed, these are the viable Constructed formats for the tabletop Regional Championship Qualifiers (RCQs). Occasionally, I may cover a Magic Online or MTG Arena format as well. The format of every week will be chosen based on the competitive tournament schedule and on relevant metagame developments. When the Regional Championships roll around, I'll be sure to focus on the top decklists and key metagame developments from all eleven geographical regions.

Although I've done a bunch of event coverage over the last decade, the last time I wrote a weekly column for Wizards of the Coast was in 2007. Back then, in the Online Tech series, I provided metagame and decklist updates from Magic Online in an era where data was hard to come by. Times have changed—nowadays the challenge seems to be that there's too much data—but I'm excited to be back at it.

In the years since, I've loved applying math to Magic and obtaining useful insights both for readers who share my affinity for mathematical analysis and for readers who don't. Over the last month, for example, I published articles on optimal mana curves using Monte Carlo simulation, land count formulas using multiple regression, and colored mana source tables using conditional probabilities. But I also have a passion for data-driven metagame breakdowns, and I'm excited to crunch the numbers today!

Pioneer Metagame Snapshot

Pioneer is the format for the first round of Regional Championships, held at the end of November or in the beginning of December, depending on your region. It is also the Constructed format for the first Pro Tour, which will also feature Limited and will be held in Philadelphia, PA, USA in February 2023.

Accordingly, Pioneer seems like the perfect format to kickstart this article series. If you're a new or returning player: Pioneer is a nonrotating, 60-card format that allows expansion sets and core sets from Return to Ravnica forward, and the most notable cards on the ban list are the fetch lands.

To distill a useful ranking of archetypes based on top-performing decklists from a variety of sources, I use a metric that assigns points to each deck equal to its number of match wins minus its number of match losses in its tournament. Swiss rounds are handled in the same way as Top 8 rounds. For unknown Swiss records, I impute my best guess based on the number of players. For example, a deck that went 3–2 in a Magic Online Preliminary was assigned one point, and a deck that most likely went 5–1 in the Swiss in a Regional Championship Qualifier followed by a win in the quarterfinals and a loss in the semifinals was assigned four points. The sum of these numbers for every archetype is then used to determine its record-weighted metagame share. This metric can be axiomatically characterized using various appealing properties, and it's an elegant way to combine popularity and performance when round-by-round results or decklists with negative records are not available.

To construct a Pioneer breakdown, I used top decklists from large competitive events over roughly the past month. From events with adequately published decklists, I selected the ones that can act as a barometer for the format and/or provide a direct or indirect path toward the Pro Tour. Specifically, I used all Magic Online decklists from Pioneer Preliminary, Pioneer Challenge, and Pioneer Showcase Challenge events held from July 15 up to August 8, as well as The 8th God of Pioneer at Hareruya Tokyo, the Degen Open, the Forgotten Path Games $3K RCQ, the Dungeons & Javas RCQ, the $5K RCQ at Card Monster Con Knoxville, the Flights 2 RCQ, and a Champions Cup Store Qualifier in Fukuoka. From this data set, which contains 426 decks in total, with archetype labels algorithmically assigned by me, the record-weighted metagame breaks down as follows.

Archetype Record-Weighted Metagame Share
1. Rakdos Midrange 15.2%
2. Mono-Green Devotion 11.8%
3. Izzet Phoenix 10.7%
4. Azorius Control 9.5%
5. Rakdos Sacrifice 7.0%
6. Mono-White Humans 6.0%
7. Mono-Red Aggro 5.8%
8. Boros Heroic 5.7%
9. Abzan Greasefang 4.4%
10. Mono-Blue Spirits 4.4%
11. Bant Spirits 3.5%
12. Lotus Field 3.2%
13. Jund Sacrifice 2.2%
14. Bant Humans 1.5%
15. Niv to Light 1.0%
16. Izzet Creativity 0.7%
17. Gruul Transmogrify 0.7%
18. Grinning Ignus 0.6%
19. Dimir Control 0.5%
20. Selesnya Auras 0.5%
21. Jeskai Ascendancy 0.5%
22. Dimir Midrange 0.5%
23. Grixis Midrange 0.4%
24. Izzet Control 0.4%
25. Rakdos Creativity 0.3%
26. Enigmatic Incarnation 0.3%
27. Four-color Greasefang 0.3%
28. Gruul Aggro 0.3%
29. Pyre Humans 0.3%
30. Esper Greasefang 0.3%
31. Vraska Green Devotion 0.3%
32. Grixis Phoenix 0.2%
33. Boros Madness 0.2%
34. Soulflayer 0.1%
35. Metalwork Colossus 0.1%
36. Grixis Prowess 0.1%
37. Omnath Fires 0.1%
38. Golgari Midrange 0.1%
39. Orzhov Humans 0.1%
40. Mardu Greasefang 0.1%
41. Standard-legal Boros 0.1%
42. Bant Company 0.1%
43. Esper Control <0.1%
44. Dredge <0.1%

This breakdown could be interpreted as a winner's metagame, i.e., a distribution of the types of decks that you can expect to face if you make a deep run in Pioneer events. In the table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing decklist that is closest to the aggregate of the archetype. These hyperlinks can act as a treasure trove of inspiration if you're looking for a new deck to pick up.

Fatal Push Fable of the Mirror-Breaker Thoughtseize Bonecrusher Giant

The most played nonland cards across all Pioneer main decks in my data set, unweighted, are Fatal Push, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Thoughtseize, and Bonecrusher Giant. This matches with Rakdos Midrange being the top dog of the format right now. However, these spells are played in a variety of decks, and I would characterize the metagame as healthy and diverse.

If you want to do well at an upcoming Pioneer event, then you should at least be familiar with the top four archetypes in the metagame right now: Rakdos Midrange, Mono-Green Devotion, Izzet Phoenix, and Azorius Control. Although this is based on an analysis of events over the past month, we'd arrive at the same conclusion if we solely focus on the highest profile event of last weekend: The Showcase Qualifier on Magic Online. The Top 4 of that event was comprised of Cherryxman's Mono-Green Devotion, Thiago Saporito's Azorius Control, Márcio Carvalho's Rakdos Midrange, and Alessandro Carvallo's Izzet Phoenix. These are the big four, yet based on the metagame table, there are also various aggressive creature decks and combo decks that you can expect to face every so often.

To figure out what a good, typical list looks like for all these top-tier archetypes, I used a proprietary aggregation method that combines popularity and performance. The core of the method was explained in an article, but I have since extended it by considering win rates, sideboards, companions, land counts, and other relevant aspects, inspired by the theory behind artificial neural networks. I once made the Top 8 of a Pro Tour with a pure average Faeries list, and today's method is far more sophisticated. In short, it aims to produce a decklist for every archetype that, based on the data, contains the best possible cards in the right quantities.

This aggregation method provides a systematic way to pinpoint the top ten "Decks to Beat" in Pioneer right now. Let's start with number one.

Rakdos Midrange is the premier midrange deck in Pioneer right now, at 15.2% of the winner's metagame. Featuring discard, removal, value-generating permanents, and mid-sized creatures, it can take the role of an aggro deck against control players or the role of a control deck against aggro players. Accordingly, Rakdos Midrange has game against everything.

When playing against this deck, you should mulligan slightly less aggressively than you otherwise might because you'll need all the resources you can muster. If you mulligan aggressively in search of certain key cards, then that will often be foiled by Thoughtseize and Dreadbore. When they deprive you of further resources with Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger, mulligans look even less appealing. Against Rakdos Midrange, you need raw cardboard, so a mediocre seven-card hand is often better than a synergistic six-card hand.

A format very similar to Pioneer is Explorer, the online true-to-paper format featuring all Pioneer-legal cards that appear on MTG Arena. In this format (which will be featured at the true pinnacle of competitive Magic, World Championship XXVIII in October) Rakdos Midrange is merely missing Dreadbore; Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth; and Rending Volley. None of those are essential, so Rakdos Midrange is also one of the most popular archetypes in Explorer.

Mono-Green Devotion can produce overwhelming board states quickly. With Elves and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, you could even ramp into Storm the Festival as early as turn three! With a bit of luck, the sorcery puts Karn, the Great Creator and Cavalier of Thorns onto the battlefield, and some versions can even hit Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God. (It's castable via Oath of Nissa otherwise.) With such raw power, it can go over the top of Rakdos Midrange, and earlier in June, Mono-Green Devotion was dominating Pioneer in the undisputed number-one spot.

Since then, we've seen an uptick in decks like Boros Heroic and Mono-Blue Spirits, which have a fast clock, exploit Mono-Green's lack of creature removal, and punish its reliance on expensive spells. These aggressive creature decks have kept Mono-Green Devotion in check. An overly simplified way of looking at Pioneer is that Rakdos Midrange is rock, Mono-Green Devotion is paper, and aggro decks are scissors. Reality is more nuanced than that, but this dynamic can help you understand the Pioneer metagame developments over time.

In any case, if you want to better understand what Mono-Green Devotion is capable of, here's a puzzle: Suppose you have Karn, the Great Creator and Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner on the battlefield with enough loyalty counters, along with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, several other lands, and eight devotion to green. Also suppose that you have a copy of Karn and a copy of Kiora in the graveyard. Your opponent has a million life. Looking at the decklist and the sideboard, can you win the game this turn?

In Explorer, Mono-Green Devotion is missing Oath of Nissa, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, Sylvan Caryatid, Polukranos, World Eater, and The Chain Veil. Due to the lack of Nykthos in particular, the deck is not as popular in Explorer as it is in Pioneer. It does exist, but you'd just as commonly see mono-green aggro decks with Werewolf Pack Leader and Steel Leaf Champion.

Izzet Phoenix is here to stay, even after the ban of Expressive Iteration. You still have Ledger Shredder and Pieces of the Puzzle, which are perfect for putting Arclight Phoenix into the graveyard and fueling your big delve spells. Indeed, unlike Modern, Treasure Cruise is legal, and it's at its best in Izzet Phoenix.

When playing against this deck, try to win the game before they can copy Temporal Trespass with Galvanic Iteration. If they succeed in taking three consecutive turns, then they will almost always emerge victoriously.

In Explorer, this archetype is missing Pieces of the Puzzle, Treasure Cruise, Fiery Impulse, Temporal Trespass, and Thing in the Ice. As a result, it doesn't really exist, at least not in this delve-spell form.

Spot removal, counterspells, card draw, sweepers, planeswalkers—Azorius Control in Pioneer has all the tools a control player might want. It's the premier control deck in the format at 9.5% percent of the record-weighted metagame. This number includes both Yorion, Sky Nomad variants and 60-card variants, but the Yorion lists had a slightly better combination of popularity and performance, which is reflected in the aggregate list above.

The choice between 60 cards and 80 cards is quite close though, and it can depend on the metagame. I believe the Yorion version is slightly better against midrange or control decks because the extra free card can matter in a long game, but it's slightly worse against aggro decks because the deck becomes less consistent, and you may not even have time to put Yorion into your hand before the game is over. In any case, if your opponent reveals Yorion, Sky Nomad as their companion, then they are very likely to be playing Azorius Control.

In Explorer, this deck is fully legal. Accordingly, Azorius Control is one of the most popular archetypes in Explorer. This means that Pioneer players can also learn from successful lists in Explorer. For example, Dream Trawler is a popular inclusion in Explorer, and it seems particularly well-positioned when Rakdos Midrange is on top of the metagame.

Next up, archetypes five through ten are all between 7% and 4% of the winner's metagame.

Witch's Oven, Cauldron Familiar, and Mayhem Devil has been a popular combination in various formats for years, and Pioneer is no different.

Back in June, the typical home for these cards was Jund Sacrifice. Right now, Rakdos is the more common version, and I can think of two reasons for that. First, players learned to move away from Oni-Cult Anvil and embrace Unlucky Witness, and the resulting Rakdos lists became more streamlined. Second, with the rise of decks like Mono-Blue Spirits, Korvold, Fae-Cursed King would often just get countered, and then you might as well choose the smoother two-color mana base with cheaper spells.

When playing against this deck, be mindful of Deadly Dispute. If they pass with two mana up in the early game, think twice before casting a creature-removal spell, especially Stomp. It might not resolve in the way you hope. And if they're making a weird attack, then maybe they're just planning to sacrifice their creature to Deadly Dispute, so go ahead and block.

In Explorer, this archetype is missing Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and Rending Volley, none of which are essential. Accordingly, Rakdos Sacrifice is one of the most popular archetypes in Explorer.

Human tribal decks in Pioneer come in many variations. There's mono-white, Bant, Orzhov, and even four-color versions built around Pyre of Heroes, but all of them rally around Thalia's Lieutenant.

Back in June, Bant was the dominant version, but in recent weeks, Mono-White Humans has been on a meteoric rise. The benefit of the single-color version is that you can effortlessly fit Mutavault into your mana base and can steal games with Brave the Elements. The instant can not only counter removal spells but also break through your opponent's blockers. When playing against this deck, you should always have surprise lethal of Brave the Elements in mind. Consider blocking and trading off early to avoid the crowded battlefields where the card excels.

In Explorer, Mono-White Humans is missing Brave the Elements, Mutavault, Kytheon, Hero of Akros, and Selfless Spirit. Given the importance of the first two, the archetype is rarely seen in Explorer.

There are basically two versions of mono-red aggro. The first is a creature-heavy one that generally uses Anax, Hardened in the Forge; Torbran, Thane of Red Fell; and Embercleave. The second is a burn/spectacle one that generally runs Soul-Scar Mage, Skewer the Critics, and Light Up the Stage. Although the burn/spectacle variant was the dominant mono-red approach in June, there has been a rapid adoption of the creature-heavy variant in recent weeks, with superior results to boot. As a result, my aggregation algorithm favored the typical card choices from the creature-heavy variant.

For what it's worth, based on my competitive success with Mono-Red Embercleave variants at the last-ever Pioneer Grand Prix and more recently in Explorer, I consider myself to be somewhat of an authority on this archetype. In fact, I once managed to show that a Singleton mono-red deck can still achieve a positive record at the Pro Tour level, if it's built well. Based on my experience, I support the creature-heavy variants and believe they are the superior choice in the present metagame. The three-damage burn spells in the burn/spectacle variant don't line up well against heavily played creatures like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet; Old-Growth Troll; or Graveyard Trespasser. By contrast, Torbran and Embercleave can profitably keep up the pressure against such opposing creatures.

In Explorer, this archetype is missing Eidolon of the Great Revel, Monastery Swiftspear, and Rending Volley. Yet all of these are replaceable, and mono-red aggro is a popular archetype in Explorer.

The basic idea of the deck is to target your own creatures with pump spells, earning heroic triggers, connive triggers, and prowess triggers along the way.

When playing against this deck, you should consider killing their creatures right away when they're tapped out. It's fine to dream of the card advantage you might generate by destroying a creature in response to Ancestral Anger or Defiant Strike, but if you commit to that plan, be aware that you might walk into Gods Willing or Sejiri Shelter.

In Explorer, this archetype is missing Monastery Swiftspear, Battlefield Forge, and Rending Volley. Yet all of these are replaceable, and Boros Prowess is a popular archetype in Explorer.

Greasefang decks aim to put Parhelion II into the graveyard on turn two and return it to the battlefield on turn three. After crewing the vehicle with Greasefang, Okiba Boss, you'll attack for 13 in the air right away and pass the turn with 12 power on the battlefield.

Back in June, Greasefang combo decks were almost nowhere to be seen because Mono-Green Devotion was dominating the metagame, and their main deck Karn, the Great Creator completely shuts down Parhelion II's crew ability. The few Greasefang decks that lingered around were typically Mardu and Esper. Since then, Mono-Green Devotion has waned somewhat, and the latest innovation for Greasefang players is a move toward Abzan.

Green spells like Satyr Wayfinder, Witherbloom Command, and Grisly Salvage have rapidly proven successful, and Abzan has become the Greasefang deck of choice by now. These spells improve consistency by putting Parhelion II into the graveyard, and even milling Greasefang can come in handy for Can't Stay Away. Playing only 20 lands seems risky, and perhaps it's too low, but these two-mana green spells help you hit your land drops. Also, green has a backup win condition in Esika's Chariot. Attacking with Esika's Chariot on turn three is still pretty good, and hardcasting the Vehicle improves resiliency if the opponent attacks your graveyard.

In Explorer, this archetype is missing Satyr Wayfinder and Abrupt Decay. Yet they are replaceable, and Abzan Greasefang is a popular archetype in Explorer. Like in Pioneer, the green version is relatively novel, so you also have the element of surprise against opponents who did not keep up with the metagame recently.

Mono-Blue Spirits is the premier tribal tempo deck in the format. It has many cards in common with Bant Spirits, but it doesn't rely on Collected Company. This means that you can't surprise opponents with Spell Queller, but you do gain room for powerful noncreature spells. Curious Obsession is one of the more important ones. If you manage to stick it early and protect it with counterspells or phasing, then you'll be massively ahead.

Playing against Mono-Blue Spirits can be tough because they have so many different instants, including various one-ofs and two-ofs. For focus, it's best to remember their most played instants—the four-ofs. For example, if they have two mana up and a Spirit on the battlefield, then you should mainly think about Rattlechains or Geistlight Snare. Be careful with your removal spell, and sequence around a Mana Leak. And if they already control Rattlechains, then be wary of a Supreme Phantom that gets flashed in mid-combat.

In Explorer, this deck is fully legal. Accordingly, Mono-Blue Spirits is one of the most popular archetypes in Explorer.

What and Where to Play?

Having presented ten "Decks to Beat," which Pioneer deck should you choose? My belief is that the current Pioneer format is healthy and that all the decks shown above are viable choices capable of winning an RCQ. Even many of the lower-percentage rogue decks can be perfectly fine choices; they might be slightly worse against an omniscient opponent, but they make up for that in surprise value.

When the metagame is balanced, it's hard to get a massive edge with your deck choice, but you can get an edge by setting yourself up to play the best Magic you can, either by becoming an expert at one deck or by picking something that you'll enjoy because it matches your preferred play style. So ask yourself, what type of Magic have you enjoyed playing the most in the past? Is it aggro, midrange, control, ramp, or combo? And do you generally enjoy the power of synergy-driven, linear decks, or do you prefer more interactive collections of flexible good cards? There's a deck for everyone in Pioneer, and your answers to these questions can help you find it.

If you'd like to participate in tabletop events, then there are plenty of options. The ones that feed Regional Championships come in various sizes, ranging from small store-level RCQs to larger tournaments at destination events. In this column, I will mainly highlight the bigger tournaments because they tend to have a larger impact on metagame developments, but the more abundant store-level RCQs are an excellent way to start your competitive Magic journey.

To find events around you, you can use the store and event locator with the filter "Regional Championship Qualifier" and visit your regional organizer's website:

Looking Ahead: Modern

Next week, given that there are several high-level Modern tournaments coming up, I'll be back with an overview of the Modern metagame. If organizers swiftly publish or link the top-performing decklists on their website or social channels and/or use MTG Melee for decklists and pairings, then I will be able to highlight their decks and metagame developments in my article. While I'm setting up, you can also point out major upcoming tournaments or results to me on Twitter at "@karsten_frank." I'm mainly interested in large, multi-invite events with adequate post-event decklist publication; live English-language video coverage is a plus.

In the weekend of August 13–14, to highlight a few of the larger and more unique tabletop Modern tournaments coming up around the world, there'll be a Modern Open at the F2F Tour Stop in Saskatoon that qualifies for a Regional Championship in Canada; there's a Modern $10,000 Regional Championship Qualifier at the Card Monster Con in Chattanooga, TN that qualifies for the Regional Championship in the USA; and there is the Philippine Open that qualifies for the Regional Championship in Southeast Asia. To reiterate, these Regional Championships will be held in late November or early December of this year, depending on the region, and the best performing players at these Regional Championships will earn that coveted invitation to the first Pro Tour in 2023.

Then, in the weekend of August 20–21, there's the Magic Showdown in Copenhagen. The Modern main event, which will be live streamed both days starting at 09:30 CEST, qualifies for the Regional Championship held in Europe in November. That's the one where you'll see me, by the way, as I earned a qualification by finishing 11th out of 935 players at the first-ever such Magic Showdown in Bologna last month.

I had an awesome experience attending such a large competitive event again, and I'm thrilled that they have been restarting all over the world.

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